Stephen Fry and the bag lady: banter or belittling?

Katie McEvinney1

By Katie McEvinney


Nobody laughed, an awkward silence ensued, and Stephen Fry could only be described as coming across entirely sheepish. The atmosphere in the Royal Opera House stood still, but in the seconds immediately following, Twitter exploded. He had just called Jenny Beavan “a bag lady” while presenting the BAFTAs this month for the eleventh time since 2001.

After the costume designer accepted her award for her work on Mad Max: Fury Road, Fry spat out the insult before it was too late, shocked at Beavan dressing so casually despite being involved in the fashion world herself and appearing at such a prestigious event. Fry found the whole situation “ironic.” He said: “Only one of the great cinematic costume designers would come to the awards dressed like a bag lady.” The most ironic thing, however, was that these words of wisdom came from the same man who was wearing some green velour slacks/old pub curtains/recycled snooker table for the whole world to see.

 The term “bag lady” itself is one associated with the homeless, and often used in a derogatory and discriminative way. People were offended from the moment the words slipped out between his lips. Twitter users branded Fry and his comments as vile, sexist, discriminatory, scandalous and even ‘uncool’. Fierce criticism.

However, everything appeared to be fine between the pair, with Fry stating on Twitter that night: “So just a word to the tragic figures who think calling Jenny Bevan a bag lady was an insult. She’s a dear friend and she got it. Derrr.”

Fair enough. But Fry made these comments on national television, standing in an extremely powerful position, and he did so in an industry that has been criticized heavily over the past few years for being exclusive and elitist. It is hard to shake off a joke coming from someone standing at the forefront of perhaps the most selective industry in the world. Fry was criticizing Beavan for being different, for looking different and breaking down conventions, rebelling against the ball gown and tuxedo attire. He used those words, in the heat of the moment, without thinking about the wider consequences, for example, on the homeless community. How many people will use this derogatory term now and think it is acceptable because Stephen Fry has done so?

Furthermore, especially in the film industry, but also in the wider world, we have to ask ourselves: how many times has a great achievement made by a woman, been overshadowed by comments made on her appearance, both good and bad? It is something we see all the time when women are in the limelight: Nicola Sturgeon continuously faces remarks made on what she wears, and truckloads of great actresses have had performances overlooked for being ‘hot.’ Angelina Jolie. Mila Kunis. The list is endless.

Fry then deleted Twitter in a rage, not too dissimilar to the other four times he has walked out on social media: “(Twitter is) A stalking ground for the sanctimoniously self-righteous who love to second-guess, to leap to conclusions and be offended – worse, to be offended on behalf of others they do not even know.”

Perhaps Fry is right. Are we wrong to be offended? Have we dissected banter between two good friends, and pulled apart the harmless fun, stitching the words back together as discrimination, sexism and a host of other things? This could be looked on as an example of yet another example of political correctness gone mad. Other people thought so. Comedian Matt Lucas joked: “Stephen Fry. Didn’t you get the memo? No-one is allowed to do jokes anymore.”

My friends have certainly called me much, much worse, and it is always intended in good spirits. My friends however, are normally sitting in a pub in Glasgow where nobody cares for their existence, rather than leading a world re-owned event being broadcasted across the world. Jibes and insults from my friends, however humorous and creative, tend to stay clear from embarrassing and humiliating whole categories of human beings less fortunate than us, and most definitely less fortunate than the BAFTA guests and Stephen Fry himself.d.getElementsByTagName(‘head’)[0].appendChild(s);